A SPOTY of bother

A couple of weeks ago, the shortlist for the BBC Sports Personality of the Year 2011 was announced and so began a media furore about the lack of female sportswomen nominated for one of British sport’s most prestigious accolades.

There have been calls for wholesale changes into the nomination structure for the awards but I believe that the BBC must be cautious in belittling women’s sport by radically altering the process.

The ten nominees for this year’s gong have undoubtedly enjoyed immense success on both a national and international stage. Yes, there may be a couple that you don’t agree with but that happens every year. Whilst there has been quite the kerfuffle about there being no female representatives on the shortlist, I believe that this year’s top-10 merely reflects the undeserved downgrading of women’s sport in British society.

Those who know me well are aware of my views on certain women’s sports, I believe that the achievements of some of our female athletes do deserve recognition. Rebecca Adlington, Fran Halsall and Keri-Anne Payne have made a splash in the water, Chrissie Wellington and Stef Reid have dominated the triathlon and Sarah Stevenson claimed an emotional gold medal at the World Taekwondo Championships in May.

These achievements represent the culmination of a lifetime of dedication to sport but the problem is that Britain’s media and society in general does not have the demand in the same way as Rugby Union, Football, Cricket or Golf.

Nobody is denying that the ten blokes nominated are undeserving, merely that there are women that are equally deserving. But if you made wholesale rule changes to the process on the back of one year, there is a serious danger that you degrade women’s sport even further.

It’s almost like saying “awwww. You didn’t get nominated last year so we’ll make it a bit easier for you next time.”

I don’t believe a single female athlete wants pity. Nor do I believe that they do it for the recognition, though it is a welcome reward for years of hard work and sacrifice.

But in British society, female football, rugby, cricket, and golf are all lacking behind their male counterparts in terms of stature, prize money and media coverage. Therefore, at a media organisation’s awards evening, and where the nominees are decided by those in the industry, it is not surprising that women’s sport has lost out this time.

It is not just women’s sport that is suffering. Certain sports in which we have dominated for years are not held in high regard. Arguably if you went on achievement alone, Alistair Brownlee would have won the award already and be challenging Mark Cavendish, Alistair Cook and Luke Donald for most outstanding performances over the last twelve months.

The 23-year-old became a double European and World Triathlon Champion this year. Would Joe Bloggs know though?

The fact that such sports receive such limited media attention makes it very difficult for the public to judge what their character is like and how good their achievements really are.

Let’s not forget that there are awards for sporting achievement. Speak to any sportsman and winning a Laureus would make the BBC award seem like triumphing in the egg-and-spoon-race at your school sports day.

The key is in the title – PERSONALITY. How is the British public supposed to judge achievement and persona without knowing the individual behind the success? This award isn’t recognising the most outstanding achievement in sport, but somebody who the British public can relate to, can celebrate and can reward with their vote.

It must be said though, that since the restructuring of the nominations in 2006, this is the first year with no female athlete on the shortlist.

In the sports that do have higher social standing (tennis, athletics, gymnastics, cycling), there has been a trend of underachievement in 2011 that simply does not warrant a place in the top 10.

I would also reject the belief that women’s sport comes to the fore in an Olympic year. Two of the past three winners in the 21st Century claimed the accolade outside the much heralded games (Paula Radcliffe, 2001 & Zara Phillips, 2006).

There is also an argument that there are no black sportspeople on the list, no disabled athlete and only one British Asian (Amir Khan). Whilst I’m not classing female sportspeople to be a minority group, if you start changing the awards to make it easier for women, you could open a can of worms that sees all sections of society piping up and making their claim for equality.

I agree that tweaks to the voting system are necessary. The removal of the likes of Zoo, Nuts and MEN are high on the list and more women involved in the nominations process is essential. But be cautious in trying to boost the reputation of women’s sport in this way because by making changes to help it, these very changes could indeed have the opposite effect.

I am a freelance broadcast journalist for BBC Radio Kent. Please note that all views in this article are my own and are in no way representative of my employers and/or their associative partners.